A place of honor

Special to The Sun

If ever there were a year that needed a Memorial Day, this is the year.

If ever there were a place to symbolize best our national need to remember andto honor, this is the place: the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington NationalCemetery in Arlington, Va.

A lone sentry marches on the long black mat in front of a monument made of50 tons of white Colorado marble. The route is always the same, every day ofthe year, in every kind of weather: 21 deliberate paces, stop, turn 90 degreesand face the tomb for 21 seconds, turn another 90 degrees and pause again,retrace the route to the other end of the mat.

The sentry wears a wool uniform, what-ever the temperature. If he isuncomfortable, he doesn't reveal it, nor does he ever relax his determinedexpression. There is nothing casual about this job.

Beneath the monument are tombs for the unknown soldiers of World War I,World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The tombs symbolizesomething we recognize all too clearly this year -- that grief, howeverunbearable, is made even worse by not knowing.

For many, the "Unknowns" is part of a solemn stop in a Washington visitthat otherwise might consist largely of museum hopping, T-shirt buying andpolitical celebrity watching.

And while there are monuments and military memorials all around theWashington metropolitan area, the revered sites on either end of the MemorialBridge -- Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and theKorean War Veterans Memorial -- constitute a sort of city of honor.

Arlington Cemetery

The history of Arlington National Cemetery includes some controversy.Before the Civil War, it was the home of Robert E. Lee, his wife havingreceived the estate from her father. But at the outbreak of war, Lee chose tofight for his beloved Virginia rather than the federal government. With thegeneral in Richmond and Union troops threatening, Mrs. Lee fled the property.

Union forces appropriated it as a headquarters, and the governmentsubsequently declared that Mrs. Lee had forfeited the grounds by failing toappear in person to pay the taxes on them.

Then the government underscored its action by using portions of the land --including her rose garden -- to bury Union war dead. Although the SupremeCourt ruled in 1882 that the federal government had misappropriated the land,thousands of soldiers had been buried by then.

The Lee family accepted a monetary settlement rather than reclaim theproperty. In later years, the cemetery expanded to its present 624 acres,which holds the remains of more than 270,000 people -- soldiers and theirfamilies, along with those who have held high federal office.

Visitors may be surprised to learn that there is more than one tomb ofunknowns at Arlington. Before the advent of "dog tags" for identification andmodern forensic methods, war dead were buried in common graves. Thus more than2,000 Civil War unknowns rest in a quiet corner of the cemetery near its westgate.

In contrast, one of those four tombs at the more recent "Unknowns" is nowempty, because of technological advances. In 1998 the unknown soldier of theVietnam War was identified through DNA testing and returned to his family forre-interment. His place at the monument remains unoccupied, a tribute to thoselost and missing from all wars.

Tourmobile routes through the cemetery make it easy to drive by the majorpoints of the cemetery and to view the famous grave sites. But if your healthpermits, avoid the temptation. This is a place to be on your feet, even thoughit means walking up hills.

On foot, you can appreciate poignant details that you might otherwise miss.The commingled, unidentifiable remains of victims of the USS Maine's historic1898 destruction lie under the mast of that ship, transported to the cemeteryfrom Havana harbor.

The listed ranks and specialties of some of the victims recall a Navy of anearlier age: oiler, coal passer, water tender, sail maker. Some memorials areliving ones. The 416th Bombardment Group planted a crab apple tree, forexample, and the 82nd Airborne a pine.

You find names that you know, but never thought of as military: AbnerDoubleday, reputed inventor of baseball, also was the Union officer to orderthe first return of fire after the Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter in1861; boxer Joe Louis was a World War II veteran; Supreme Court Justice OliverWendell Holmes Jr. had served in the Civil War. There are a number of smallmemorials to particular professions: nurses, chaplains, war correspondents.

Back at the main gate, there is a new indoor memorial honoring women in themilitary service.

But, mainly, just try to comprehend the fields of tombstones and the livesthey represent. Generals and admirals, yes, but also airmen, privates andpetty officers. The inscriptions are stingy with information -- name, rank,birth date, date of death, branch of service, religious symbol. And,occasionally, "wife of" the spouse who shares the plot. That's all. The littledetails, the things that made each life unique, will have to be recalled foryou by their families or friends who may be paying their respects.

At Arlington we know only that the soldiers answered when called, and thatis why they are honored here.

Kennedy graves

In the cemetery's visitor's center, there is a small and momentarilypuzzling sign. It requests silence because "this is an active cemetery."

"Active" may seem like an odd choice of words. There is active touring, ofcourse, by busloads of tourists and school groups who sometimes need to bereminded that this is not a theme park. There are groundskeepers busilypruning trees, trimming grass, pressure-washing tombstones. But the officialexplanation is that military funerals occur here still.

An average of 25 such services are performed every day, with the preciseformalities we've come to know from television news -- the playing of taps,the rifle volleys and the presentation of the folded flag to the family.

Those beyond a certain age have clear images of such a ceremony in November1963 when President John F. Kennedy was laid to rest on a hillside below Lee'smansion.

Kennedy's grave remains a primary focal point of the cemetery, each dayattracting thousands of visitors who walk up the paths or alight from theTourmobile to pay their respects.

Here lie Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and two infantchildren. (John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, is notburied at Arlington; his ashes were scattered at sea.)

Though elegant, the site is not overwhelming by usual memorial standards.The "eternal flame" above the graves is a small plume of fire. There is a lowwall inscribed with memorable JFK quotations at the edge of the site. Thetombs themselves lie beneath large blocks of Massachusetts granite.

Even more understated is the adjacent grave of Robert F. Kennedy, who wasassassinated in 1968. The spot is marked by a simple cross at the bottom of ahill, opposite a rectangular pool.

The impressive house above the Kennedy graves is often called the LeeMansion, but its correct name is Arlington House -- from which come the namesof the cemetery and the Virginia county in which it lies.

The mansion was built by George Washington Parke Custis, Mrs. Lee's father,who named it after property that his family held on Virginia's eastern shore.Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington from her first marriage, but hebuilt the house to honor George Washington, the man who raised him, and hefilled it with military and presidential memorabilia.

Now, it is a memorial to Lee and is furnished in the style of the general'stime.

Looking out from the house toward the Potomac River, visitors mayappreciate one of America's most spectacular views. Immediately below are theKennedy graves; around them are acres of uniform tombstones, precisely spacedin the green lawns as though the dead still were maintaining perfect militaryformation. And beyond them lie the Memorial Bridge, the Lincoln Memorial, theWashington Mall and the neo-classical office / temples of the nation'scapital.

Appropriately, the tomb of Pierre L'Enfant, designer of the city, liesdirectly in front of the mansion at a point where the view might be bestenjoyed.

The very first Memorial Day was proclaimed at Arlington House on May 30,1868. But it was then known as Decoration Day, a day for honoring "the gravesof comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."

In 1888, Congress declared it a national holiday and gave it its presentname.

As you tour the cemetery, you occasionally can hear the sound of bells.There are bells at the amphitheater, but also an entire tower of them just offthe grounds. The Netherlands Carillon, like the Marine Corps War Memorial nextto it, appears to be part of the cemetery. As someone who has tried to walkthere directly, however, only to be frustrated by the formidable cemeteryfence, I can confirm that they are separate parcels.

Iwo Jima statue

Unlike the cemetery, which is supervised by the Army, the carillon and theIwo Jima statue (as the Marine memorial is more commonly known) are NationalPark Service facilities. But as with the cemetery, the theme of the park nextdoor is reverential respect.

The carillon was a gift from the Dutch people in 1954 in gratitude forAmerican help during World War II. The carillonneur -- the musician who playsit -- sits at a keyboard in a small cabin 83 feet up the carillon tower. Thecarillon has a total of 50 bells of various sizes. (During colder months acomputer replaces the human musician.) Visitors can climb to the cabin level,but only during recitals. The view is terrific.

(On Monday, there will be a Memorial Day recital by carillonneur EdwardNassor from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.)

Across the lawn from the carillon is the statue that has come to symbolizethe battle in the Pacific during World War II. But the famous figures of fivemarines and one Navy medical corpsman raising the flag on Mount Surabachiactually commemorate all engagements of the Marine Corps since its formation.

The names of each conflict are inscribed in gold on the granite base of thememorial with their beginning and ending dates. Adm. Chester Nimitz's tributeto the Marines after the battle of Iwo Jima is carved in large letters:"Uncommon valor was a common virtue."

Linking the cemetery with the District of Columbia across the Potomac isthe low, graceful Memorial Bridge, a half-mile-long strand of granite finishedin 1932. It completes the visual connection from Lee's mansion to the LincolnMemorial across the Potomac on the Mall, and thus symbolically reunites Northand South.

Vietnam, Korea

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is a fitting stop after a tourof the Virginia sites. The wall of names has a profound effect on visitors.

As visitors approach the memorial, they see a few names on the first blackgranite panel as they start down the sloping walk, then more names, and stillmore. Soon the visitors have disappeared below ground level where there arestill more names, a total of more than 58,000. There are flowers and flags andphotographs left as individual remembrances. Some people take pencil rubbingsof a loved one's name. Some pray; some weep.

The wall of names will be 20 years old in November. An estimated 3 millionpeople visit the site every year.

A nearby statue depicts three battle-weary soldiers. It was erected in 1984when some people argued that the now-famous memorial by Maya Ying Lin was adepressing, unpatriotic hole in the ground. The statue -- less of a departurefrom traditional memorial art -- was added as a compromise.

Also touching is the 1993 statue honoring the work of military women duringthe Vietnam War. In it one nurse, like the Madonna in Michelangelo's Pieta,cradles a stricken soldier; a second kneels while holding a helmet. A thirdlooks skyward, seeking help from above -- a helicopter, perhaps, or somethingdivine.

Behind the Vietnam Memorial, across the Lincoln Memorial's reflecting pool,is another memorial that might be overlooked.

The Korean War, sometimes called America's "forgotten war," is recalled inseveral compelling ways at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Statues of 19 servicemen from all four military branches and of variousethnicities appear to work their way up an exposed slope. They wear ponchos,but that was small comfort. In their faces you can feel the bitter Koreanwinter, even on a warm Washington afternoon. In front of the point man is atriangular stone inscribed with thanks to those "who answered the call todefend a country they never knew and a people they never met."

The soldiers' images are reflected in a polished wall and thus superimposedon etched photographs of hundreds of other servicemen and women involved inthe conflict. Water splashes quietly in a "pool of remembrance," and a carvingon another wall beyond it states, "Freedom is not free."

Which brings us back to Arlington and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Occasionally, the marching of the sentry is interrupted by the ceremonialplacing of a wreath before the monument. Everyone stands at attention as abugler plays taps, the mournful eternal lullaby. Military personnel salute;civilians place their hands on their hearts in appreciation.

When you go

  • Getting there: To get to Arlington Cemetery from Baltimore, take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, I-295, to Route 50 (New York Avenue.). Take New York Avenue west 4.5 miles to I-395. The I-395 tunnel goes under the Mall and over the Potomac on the 14th Street Bridge. Exit shortly after the bridge onto Route 110. Arlington Cemetery is about 1.3 miles from that exit; follow the signs. * Although you can see the Netherlands Carillon and Marine Corps War Memorial from the cemetery, it's a difficult walk. Drive instead, using Route 50 to the Rosslyn exit, and then watch the signs closely. The parking lot is free but fills up fast. * To reach the Vietnam and Korean war memorials from the cemetery, drive across the Potomac into Washington on Memorial Bridge, past the Lincoln Memorial to Constitution Avenue. * The cemetery has its own Metro subway stop on the system's Blue Line. The Nether-lands Carillon and Marine Corps War Memorial are a short walk from the Rosslyn station, which is served by both the Blue and Orange lines. The Vietnam and Korean war memorials are about nine blocks from the nearest Metro station, Foggy Bottom on the Blue and Orange lines. The memorials:
    Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA 22211
    * The cemetery is open every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., April through September, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through March. There is no fee to enter the cemetery.
    * Tourmobiles run frequently from the visitor's center. Various package tours are available; a tour of just the cemetery costs $5.25.
    * To locate a particular grave, stop at the visitor's center to obtain the section and grave number and directions on how to reach it. Graves are catalogued by date of burial, so have that information available. It is advisable also to know branch of service, place of death and next of kin. Call 703-607-8052 for more information.
    * Arlington House, on the cemetery grounds, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through September, and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. October through March.
    * Picnicking is not permitted on the cemetery grounds, but is allowed in the park by the Netherlands Carillon and Iwo Jima statue.
    The Netherlands Carillon (703-289-2550; www.nps.gov / gwmp / carillon.htm), and U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (703-289-2500; www.nps.gov / gwmp / usmc.htm) are located between the north end of Arlington Cemetery and the edge of Arlington's Rosslyn business district. The grounds are always open, and there is no entrance fee.
    * Carillon recitals are offered 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays, June through August.; Marine Corps "sunset review parades" occur from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday nights, June through August.
    Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Constitution Avenue at Henry Bacon Drive, near Lincoln Memorial; Korean War Veterans Memorial, Daniel French Drive, near Lincoln Memorial
    www.nps.gov / vive / home.htm
    www.nps.gov / kwvm / home.htm
    * The Vietnam and Korean war memorials are open from 8 a.m. to midnight every day except Christmas. Information kiosks are staffed during those hours, and tours by National Park Service rangers are conducted most afternoons. There is no entrance fee.
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